What better way to get in the spirit of NYC Beer Week 2013 (kicking off tomorrow) than with a craft beer roundtable made up of some of the foremost thinkers, proprietors and doers within the New York City craft beer scene?
The participants were gracious enough to share their thoughts on a wide range of topics pertaining to what’s going on in the NYC craft beer scene this very moment. If you don’t already do so, you should be frequenting their establishments and reading their work.
- Josh Bernstein, Freelance Beer Writer and a leading authority on the U.S. craft beer movement, @JoshMBernstein
- David Cichowicz, Owner, Good Beer, @GoodBeerNYC
- Patrick Donagher, Owner/Manager, Alewife, @PatricksBeer, @AleWifeNYC
- Henry Joseph, General Manager, Pony Bar, @ThePonyBarUES, @ThePonyBar
- Ted Kenny, Owner, Top Hops, @TopHops
- Zach Mack, ABC Beer Co., @ABCBeerCo
- Samuel Merritt, founder of Civilization of Beer; @CivofBeer
- Brandon Moore, American Beer Distributors
- Chris O’Leary, Editor, Brew York @Brew_York
The roundtable was developed and moderated by Larry Koestler, a fellow beer geek and longtime friend of ours. You can follow Larry on Twitter @Larry_Koestler, read what he has to say about beer at his website, friend him on Untappd, circle him on Google+ and connect with him on Instagram.
Now, without further ado, here’s what these folks have to say about the beer scene in New York, the beer industry as a whole, and the future of beer…
1) How would you describe the current state of the craft beer scene in New York City? Is the market fully saturated now or do you still see more room for expansion? With places like Duane Reade offering growler fills of good beer for $9.99 and craft beer becoming increasingly prevalent (and in certain cases, cheaper) at retail locations throughout the city, how has that affected business, if at all?
Henry Joseph: New York’s a weird place. There are world-class beer bars here and craft beer is easy to find just about anywhere you go. But NYC has been much later to the game of craft beer than places like Chicago, DC, Boston, and even Pittsburgh. I feel like now it’s a game of catch-up and a lot of places have latched onto craft beer as a “thing” that’s “cool.” It’s all very New York.
I don’t think we’re anywhere near saturation. This market has so much room to grow. You look at some of those other cities and you can find dive bars there that have a better selection than half our beer bars.
Places like Duane Reade can sell their growlers for $9.99 or whatever price they want. People who care will seek out what’s best. So added competition is only an invitation to step up your game.
People want to talk about craft beer being over saturated and that there’s bound to be a collapse/backlash/whatever. But craft beer still only accounts for less than 5% of the marketplace!! We have so much further to go and over saturation talk is just that.
Chris O’Leary: I think we’re in a much better place than we were just five years ago. People say that New York City was slow to catch on to the craft beer trend, and I agree. But there’s far more room for improvement and expansion. I often joke that in order for New York to have the same number of breweries per capita as Portland, Oregon, we’d need about 400 more. I don’t think we’re realistically going to do that, but we’re nowhere near the ceiling. I don’t see the Duane Reade growler as a threat at all. They’re getting people who may not have even considered craft beer before to dabble in it at a very low price point. If that later gets them to order a craft beer in a bar or try a higher-end craft beer in a growler, that’s a good thing for all of us.
Sam Merritt: It is in a major transition. There are many beer-centric choices now and one that we’re paying close attention to is the bottle shop/on premise combination. I don’t believe the market is even close to saturated. Plenty of room.
Josh Bernstein: New York City is a strange, strange beast when it comes to beer. For years, we lagged behind the rest of the country, but now we’re in a hurry-up phase of adding new bars, bottle shops and breweries. Some will succeed. Some will fall, especially those who latch onto the trend without context or passion. But I believe we are nowhere near saturation point. And Duane Reade and Whole Foods selling craft beer is a great thing, not a negative.
David Cichowicz: I don’t think we are even close to saturation. There are still many neighborhoods lacking craft beer bars and bottle shops. Duane Reade’s aggressive pricing hasn’t affected my business largely because you can’t get the same level of service from a DR employee as you can in my shop nor do you get the selection you have at Good Beer. In addition, having craft beer in more places just adds to the presence in the market. If someone is not aware of craft beer, they may not seek out my shop but they still need toilet paper and tooth paste and maybe as they are walking through the aisle at DR, they spot a six pack of Toasted Lager, pick it up, love it and then start actively seeking other craft beers and craft beer businesses.
Patrick Donagher: The beer scene of New York City to me is mind-blowing. We have access to some of the best beers on the planet from amazing importers thanks to the Shelton Brothers, 12% Imports & B United, as well as the great work of Union Beer, American Beer, Manhattan Distributors in bringing us great breweries from across the country and local breweries that self-distribute. I know the beer is here, I see the inventories every week from distributors and breweries. I’ve done my very best to get them into the bars I have ran in the past, the bars I consult for, the bars I own and the bars I stumble into and offer a drunken piece of beery advice!
The beer scene is good but can be GREAT; the beer is here, it’s about getting that great beer into the bars and getting good beer on those macro lines. I know why the Stella, Bud, Blue Moon, etc. lines are being poured, its because the big three pay for a bar’s tap installation or a check gets into the right hands, a deal is done, a bar gets $50 - $80 kegs of Coors, Miller, Bud and whatever else they are pushing and then sells it for $6 or $7 — that’s quite the mark up. How are craft brands to compete with that? One way is the huge attention craft beer is getting thanks to the work of bloggers who bring the attention to the bigger press and so it goes.
New York is going in the right direction and has created an amazing buzz for craft beer that echoes across the country. For a few years now, I have seen good beer creeping into good restaurants, corner delis, clubs and even airports. I absolutely believe that New York is far from saturated; this city is huge and there are still massive gaps that need conquering. When I go out for a few beers, there’s usually a cab ride involved to get to the next beer bar; I look forward to the day when craft beer is the norm and we can go back to calling good bars “bars” and not “beer bars”!
As for Duane Reade and company, I had done a little research into this subject as I was concerned about the beer stores that sell growlers to go (playing devil’s advocate), and for the beer stores I figured it was a kick in the nuts — how can you compete with $9.99 growlers? We know the overheads and margins we have to keep to stay afloat. I noticed that Duane Reade carries brewery “flagship” beers which helps expose a wider audience to the beer scene, and those that found a love of a product they once thought bland will source out establishments that serve more styles of such breweries, so that seems like it could potentially be a good thing for the bars and the stores. I know it’s good for the breweries and distributors, but is it good for the small growler stores and bars that just lost customers because they can drink at home for $10 rather that enjoy a few pints at a bar and drink $7 pints? Do bars want such cheap people as customers? I don’t know yet.
The fact that big stores are carrying craft beer is great for the scene as a whole and will attract more of an audience. If they pour good beer I think people will end up at a bar, drink better beer and never look back!
Brandon Moore: Beer is in a renaissance phase that can realistically grow indefinitely. As consumers reach toward craft beer they are embraced by a better beer, and a great community. Craft beer currently captures a range from 4%-12% of the market. The remainder of beer drinkers are still drinking mass produced lagers. I can’t say how fast those drinkers will find craft beer but I can say that it is becoming easier.
The current craft beer drinker is a seeker of better quality Typically looking for better food as well. Craft beer bars are growing in the city and certainly there is lots of room for more of them. I see a lot of bored people eating and drinking the same boring stuff. Those are all future craft beer drinkers, it is just a matter of when and where they have their first high quality beer. That is a formula for growth.
With that said though, I DO NOT see craft getting any cheaper. We are still subject to the same ebb and flow of the market. We share shipping and resource cost fluctuations with every other industry and that is also reflected to the retail consumer.
Zach Mack: I think New York is far from saturation at this point. In fact, I think your average New Yorker is awakening to the availability of awesome beers, not just mass produced swill, and they’re eager for more places to discover the breweries they like. The fact that Duane Reade is offering $10 growlers is proof of this. The only affect this has had on business is raising awareness of craft beers.
Ted Kenny: I don’t think the market in craft beer is anywhere near saturation. The craft beer market is an expanding pie, it’s not a static number of people. I read an interesting article on the growing national craft beer market. Almost everything I read says that craft beer will hit 10% of the overall beer market in the next few years nationally. We are not even at 5% in NYC. The room for growth is kind of insane. The new drinkers turning 21 are adopting craft at higher rates every year. The growth I see at the high end dining scene tells me that the more mature crowd is also turning to craft in greater numbers. When I worked at A-B it allowed me to look at the craft segment from the outside. What I saw was that the craft drinker was not easily defined by demographics. It is growing across age, gender, race and ethnic groups. I think the momentum will continue to build. Duane Reade and the likes selling growlers exposes more people to craft than before. What we really need are even more places who put craft beer first in their bars, restaurants and stores. Treat the beers right and employ good staff who can educate the consumers. That will grow the craft community and it is something Duane Reade et. al. will never offer.
2) How are you coping with the increases in the costs of specialty kegs of beer, especially when sixtels are starting to exceed $200?
DC: Unfortunately price increases are something we have to deal with and something that will be passed on to the consumer. You don’t choose to drink craft beer to save money though so I expect like any thing else, if you demand quality, you are going to have to pay for it. There are still many craft brands that are very affordable but people that are seeking very special beers will not balk at the price.
TK: Rotating the vast majority of my lines gives me the flexibility to put some of these on. That being said there are some really great beers out there that have these price tags that are just not well known enough and so the sell through just isn’t strong enough. I want to offer my customers great products and great experiences, but we need to keep the lights on too. With the special kegs I have to have a good reason to believe it’s going to move.
HJ: We are coping with the increase cost in beer in a very public way. By increasing our prices. Some people have been unhappy about this, but that’s the reality of the world we live in. Aside from that, though, it’s a balancing act. If a brewery is consistently on the higher end of the market, we’ll pour less of them than breweries that are more reasonably priced.
PD: The price we pay is always a concern for me. Do I spend the money? Will I scare off a new customer who now probably thinks my place is overpriced? Fuck it, I buy beer because I like good beer and I know the bar will have other very affordable and quality beer. I know my customers will appreciate the beer and I always want a kickass selection. I’ll do my best to make that beer affordable to all. Two concerns: The price of beer increased two years ago due to a scary hop shortage and hop contractors increased their prices, so the price of a keg went up and the consumer paid an extra 50 cents or dollar. Now that the hop shortage is over and the hop contractors retracted their high prices, why has the price of beer not retracted too? Because people are buying no matter the cost — hey, we’re still cheaper than wine! Anyway, I’ll explain to my staff and do a tasting of the beer so they can sell a damn good beer no matter the cost — beer is getting expensive and so is every other product. Brewers are getting more creative and adding crazy ingredients. Like a visionary chef, if you want quality, you have to pay a little extra for it. The thing that gets me is the distributor mark-up — I know the price a brewery sells a keg for and the mark-up the distributor has to implement for running an operation of cross-country pickups, warehouse logistics, staff, etc., but why mark up a special keg (of which we all want) just because it’s rare or barrel-aged? Shouldn’t they have a constant mark-up percentage for all kegs, cases and casks across the board? I recently attended the “Beer Bar Association” meeting in Boston with 55 bar owners from across the country and discussed this matter in depth (for those owners that want to join, shoot me an email — this is an extremely important group to be part of). I wouldn’t order an expensive keg if I knew it wasn’t worth it.
BM: I am selling those $200 sixtels just as fast as the $75 dollar sixtels. The cost is not reflective of how fast it sells. That tells me that the bars and restaurants are doing just fine with it. The craft beer consumer is more than ready to spend an extra couple bucks per serving and in some cases drink as little as 4 oz pours. The wine and spirit world does not achieve such a quality jump for so little cost jump. Beer is still cheap fun for the masses by comparison, only now we can boast that a beer experience can rival any wine or spirit at much less.
ZM: If the only thing you’re offering are $9 12 oz. pours of a $200 sixtel, you may have to worry. I find that when I pour something expensive next to a quality $5 pint, they sell at an equal pace. At first I thought it was the exclusivity of the beer that had it selling, but I’m finding more as time goes on that it’s someone who’s devoted to a particular style or country. In a neighborhood where people routinely pay $8 for a gin and well tonic, I don’t think having a few expensive beers in a wide selection fazes anyone.
CO: Pricing is getting particularly tricky, but what I’m more worried about is bars and retailers taking advantage of it. Not everyone is privy to how much a keg costs, but when you walk into a bar and see two beers that are priced the same at wholesale but are sold to the consumer at very different prices, you have to think that place is trying to take advantage of you as a beer drinker. My hope is that beer bars find ways to be creative with their pricing: offering half-pints or shorter pours at more reasonable prices, and playing the “high-low” game with pricing so that some craft beer options are affordable to the entry-level beer drinker. Now, bars in Manhattan seem to be testing the waters of an $8 floor for their craft beers. That’s very troubling, but in the end, if the market is willing to bear it, they will succeed.
SM: I’m not a retailer but, with the costs and margins that on premise retailers deal with here in the city, the only way to cope is to pass all or some of the price increase on to the beer drinker. For example, one of the best beer bars in the country, Pony Bar, recently moved pricing from a flat 5$ to a flat $6 for all 20 of the American Crafts they sell. When I asked Henry Joseph, the buyer and mgr there about their customer’s reaction, he said he got more push back when they changed the boards listing the beers. I think if you’re doing a good job and explain your pricing to people, they will understand and pay.
JB: I’m not on the retail side, but I will say this: Pricey pours of “rare” beer rarely quicken my pulse. Give me a solid all-day drinker any day.
3) What do you think the hurdles are that keep breweries from entering the New York market? Why do you think some breweries cite cost concerns when they could take on a model of limited distribution to key accounts?
HJ: The main barriers to entry are size and supervision. How do you make enough beer to satisfy this market and when you do send it out, is someone going to be their to make sure it’s handled properly. These days breweries are trying so hard just to keep their local markets satisfied the thought of entering this city can be overwhelming. And if you do send your beer here, how are you going to make sure it’s not just sitting on a shelf somewhere, or, even worse, in a warehouse?
Making beer requires a lot of time and space and those things are very expensive to a small business. A new hire is too. However, people like Brandon and American Beer have done a great job in slowly building new breweries by bringing small amounts of their beer in that they can move quickly to accounts that know how to sell them. Avery and Dark Horse are great examples of this.
CO: Cost. Cost, cost, and cost. New York is a daunting market to take on because of its sheer size. Even though the city is on the low end in terms of craft beer consumption, 5-10% of 8 million is a big number, and most breweries are still too small to flood this market with beer while serving their core home markets. Regulatory issues and fees face new entrants, too, although last year’s changes by the State Liquor Authority that now waive the registration fee for small batches actually benefit some of the very small, nearby out-of-state brewers. Despite all this, we have one of the broadest selections of craft beer from across the country and around the world. Hill Farmstead! Southern Tier! Captain Lawrence! Founders! These are brewers that people out on the West Coast fawn over. And yet we have access to brewers like Elysian, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and many more that they celebrate out there, too.
And to be honest, I’m legitimately concerned about adding another of the big West Coast players to this market. Especially concerning is New Belgium, who’ll probably have their eye on here once they open their new brewery in Asheville. Fat Tire is marketed as an entry-level beer that could be competing for tap space with a lot of our local brewers’ flagship beers, particularly Brooklyn, Sixpoint and Captain Lawrence. That’s concerning.
SM: The big number of brands, and the competition, the pressure from retailers who are spending more than other markets to build out and operate. same as always. The key accounts are usually sprinkled through a pretty big delivery area, this means more time delivering and schlepping.
JB: In short: I don’t think anything is keeping breweries from entering the NYC market. We have more, and more interesting beers, being sold in NYC than most cities in the country. I mean, we have Firestone Walker, Ballast Point, Dark Horse, Allagash and a host of other world-class breweries selling in our marketplace.
DC: First off, size of market. Coming here without a great deal of excess inventory makes it very hard to keep your product on the shelves and they don’t want to starve their established markets simply to have their beer here. The SLA costs of registering are high compared to other states.
PD: I have no idea, if I were brewing enough beer outside of New York and my local market was looked after, then hell yeah I would want my beer to be poured in New York City. I don’t care about those breweries who don’t have the vision or foresight to see what NYC can do for their brand — the taxes, brand registration, transport, etc., can all be eaten up by the price we pay for it. There aren’t many breweries that aren’t available in NY — those like Lost Abbey and Russian River don’t have the capacity to feed NYC; we’re a very thirsty town! Bell’s? We all know about the public feelings Larry Bell has for NYC! We have great breweries within and should help our locals.
BM: I think entering the New York market could be scary for some. The demands placed on output is more than they can realistically produce and while that is scary, being in demand is never a bad thing. The current local breweries struggle to produces enough beer to meet market demand. There is really no way small out of state brands can either, but at least it gives us a broader spectrum of the market to choose from. We love our home town favorites, but the craft beer core always wants what they cannot have.
ZM: I can’t claim to fully understand licensing and distribution laws in the state, but from what I’ve experienced since opening, I’d say the sheer size of the New York market makes it a daunting entry for a lot of breweries. Being able to produce enough product reliably, competing with other brands, navigating distribution and marketing must be an absolute nightmare for some of the smaller guys. It’s cool to see people like Brandon at American Beer who help smaller breweries ease into the market.
TK: The question I get all the time is why can’t I get beer from Brewery X in NYC. With a few notable exceptions the answer is that the brewery cannot brew enough beer to satisfy this market as well as their existing markets. The only way they can do this is to expand their capacity dramatically. Many of the brewers want to manage their growth and there are other substantial costs involved in expanding to a new market and as we all know too well everything costs more in NYC. It is one of the major drawbacks of living in NYC, everything that is great becomes too popular to enjoy easily. I used to go up to Bryant Park for movies on Monday nights in the summer. I used to be able to get there at 7:30 and put my blanket down and hang out till 8:30 till it got dark. Now if you have a day job forget about it, you have to be there by 4:30 because they drop the rope at 4:45 and the land rush begins. All the grass is covered with blankets within minutes. It still doesn’t get dark enough for the movie till 8:30, now you have 4 hours to kill. You want to go to Shakespeare in the Park, you have to sleep in Central Park or on Astor Place to get the tickets. Unfortunately beer is the same way. Limited releases in select accounts doesn’t do much to solve this. When this happens a few people have access to a small amount of beer and a huge number of people want it.
4) What breweries that are not distributed in NYC do you get asked about the most?
HJ: Mostly Midwest breweries like Great Lakes and Bell’s (ed. note: it looks like the latter may actually happen). New Belgium, too. We get a lot of people saying, “I went down to visit my (friend/relative) in (whatever city) and they had this beer from this tiny (brewery/brewpub). You guys should totally get some of that stuff in here.” They don’t quite understand how making and selling beer works.
JB: Hands-down, people want to see Bell’s in NYC.
DC: Bell’s, Russian River, New Belgium.
PD: Mostly Russian River, Lost Abbey/Port, Bell’s and Three Floyds.
ZM: The first day that goes by without someone chiding me for not carrying Fat Tire will be a day of note. Also, Russian River. I’ve noticed that a lot of people assume picking up a beer is as easy as calling the brewery and asking them for a case.
TK: Bell’s, Russian River, Great Lakes, Hill Farmstead (yes I know it is supposedly distributed in NYC, see above answer) and Heady Topper. Then there are all the requests for tiny breweries in a far away country that they haven’t ever seen outside of that village.
CO: Bell’s, Russian River, and New Belgium. Think that’s the consensus, too.
BM: This is largely dependent on what is trending at the moment. Most of the core craft beer market knows what is in their market. I don’t worry much about what they think they want, I always turn them on to something that is available. “Hey, drink a beer man.”
5) What are your favorite New York City/State-based breweries and beers?
JB: In New York State, Captain Lawrence continues to crank out dependably delicious beers, while I do so love the beers of Greenport Harbor. You can never go wrong with anything from Ommegang, and the line of Brewmaster’s Reserve beers from Brooklyn Brewery deserve some recognition. I’m excited to see what happens with Peekskill, too.
SM: As a former employee I’m biased on this, but Brooklyn is my first love. After that, I can honestly say I’ve only had two very horrible beers brewed in NY. The rest ranged from quite passable, to pleasant to absolutely sublime and unforgettable.
HJ: Barrier’s just killing it all around. Anyone who makes a year-round Gose is great in my book. Since working at The Pony Bar I’ve enjoyed just about every beer I’ve had from Empire.
I’ve noticed a lot of hate, or at least disinterest in Brooklyn deep in the beer community here, simply because they’ve been around a long time and they’re not that exciting, I guess. But they consistently make some of the best beers around. Especially their Brewmaster’s Reserve Series. Maybe it’s just that people have had too many Brooklyn Lagers from a dirty line. I don’t know.
Captain Lawrence is another great one, and I’m very excited to check out Jeff O’Neill’s stuff from Peekskill. Southern Tier is another brewery that doesn’t really put out any dogs and Sixpoint still occasionally wows me with something.
CO: I think Greenport Harbor is doing some pretty great things these days, and with their new brewery coming, they’re going to be out there a lot more. Barrier is still a personal favorite of mine because Craig and Evan make so many damn different styles and do them all well. Peekskill is going to wow people this year now that Jeff O’Neill has the new space and will be sending beer down to the city. I think we’ve got some pretty talented people working in New York making great beer.
ZM: It’s long been Brooklyn, Kelso, and Ommegang for me. I’m starting to fall in love with a lot of Greenport Harbor’s stuff, too.
TK: I really enjoy the beers from Greenport Harbor. I also think Captain Lawrence is making great beers up in Westchester and I love going up there for sampling. Ommegang from one end of the lineup to the other is great.
DC: Southern Tier, Captain Lawrence, Kelso, Barrier.
6) How have you seen your businesses grow/evolve since opening? Does anyone have any future plans for expansion?
PD: Prior to Alewife, as many know Rattle N Hum was a huge part of my life for more than three years. It was tough at the start to get the place rolling but once we got the momentum going it just launched a whole new beer scene for New York City. I traveled to breweries and constantly worked at bringing the best beers, brewery launches, etc., to the New York City beer-drinking public, and I think we raised the bar — no pun intended — for so many when it came to events, beer lists and hopefully made NYC a better place to drink good beer. I also created an aging program for some beers and released them a year or two later for some kick-ass events, even going so far as to rent a basement room to store beers. It was truly a fun time and did pretty well, I’m truly very happy from the time I spent there, the people I met and the beers we all drank!
One of the other things I was proud of during my time at RnH was promoting cask ale, which lead to a few cask festivals in house and then the forming of Get Real Beer with my good friends Chris Cuzme, Mary Izzet, Andy Freedman and Daniel Lanigan. Get Real took off, we did a huge cask ale festival that took cask ale to a new level of appreciation in NYC, and from there we created a few more fests of different kinds, working with local farms and restaurants to showcase how great beer goes with great food. Over the last few years Get Real created aPORKalypse Now, Belgian Beer Fest, Beer Bar Fest, Cask Fest and Beer Balls, among others. I’ve always loved doing these kinds of events and would love to create more, they really bring in a crowd of new or novice craft beer drinkers that will probably never drink fizzy yellow water again!
Partnering up with Daniel at Alewife has probably been the best decision I’ve ever made — he’s a true beer connoisseur and smart businessman. We’ll do some more great work together in the near future!
As for expansion plans, my newest endeavor is The Jeffrey, which will be located at 311 East 60th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenue). The Jeffrey will consist of a bar of rare and amazing beers, bourbons, scotch, wine, etc. On the other side we will install a bottle/growler store featuring beers to go or consumed in-house. It’s definitely going to be a fun little beer haven that will hopefully do well; I intend on having a sick beer list at all times — including great and healthy food treats — while also catering to novice beer drinkers. I don’t want to scare people off with our selection, and a well-educated staff will see to that. I think also having a nice selection of wines will help draw and convert them slowly to our wonderful world! The space also has a large back garden that may remain a garden or we will build out — the community board is insistent on making us close the garden early, so building out may be the better option. Our main goal is to open the space ASAP and worry about the back later. I’m building the space myself to save money and if I open under budget it’s gotta set some kind of opening record! The Jeffrey will be open a month from the day we get our permits; hopefully it won’t be too long.
One last note on beer freshness: if a beer doesn’t taste right to me and I take it off, I always contact the brewery immediately to inform them, and 99% of the time they’re very thankful. Bars have to respect beer because if it’s bad then you just lost a potential craft beer customer and they may never drink from that brewery (or your bar) again!
TK: We just finished our first year and I am very excited for the year ahead. The numbers are moving in the right direction. As I stated in the answer to the first question I think there is plenty of room for growth. I am concentrating on growing the business we have now, but it is nice to dream about expansion. I do think there is plenty of room, but it took me a year and a half to find this space and get the lease signed. I see growth virtually every day from people who are just discovering the world of more flavorful beers. The number of articles I read in mainstream media about new breweries and new beers just blows my mind. Rarely does a week go by that someone doesn’t email me an article from WSJ or The NY Times or another non-beer-industry publication.
SM: I run one of the first beer education consulting companies in the country. There has been nothing but robust growth for this business since I founded it nine years ago. With the number of new breweries opening in the next few years, the market saturation will prove to be very beneficial to those with the concern of educating and instilling confidence in those who sell and server beer.
HJ: We started really quick out of the gate and things haven’t really slowed down much. It was fun in the early days to kind of guide people along their craft beer discoveries and see people grow into craft beer aficionados and fanatics. It’s also been fun seeing how different the crowds are at our two locations and the different reactions to our two different openings. We plan to expand further but there’s nothing definite in the works.
ZM: The neighborhood’s response to us has been fantastic. Once we sort out the catastrophic losses we suffered from Sandy, I can definitely see us expanding under the right conditions.
JB: Beer journalism–wise, I’ve seen my workload explode over the last couple years. I can barely keep up.
DC: Business has continued to grow each year and I would open another in the future if I felt there was the right place at the right price.
CO: Let’s put it this way: I used to struggle to write enough material on Brew York each week to keep up a regular readership. Now I can barely keep up with all the new openings and beer releases and events on my own. Especially as a writer with a day job.
BM: Yes we have seen several breweries come in and grow beyond our scope. We are the incubator for craft, we stay the same size and the breweries get bigger. We support and market their brands. I think we have a unique ability to focus on several brands and give them the immediate market attention they need, while also keeping them out of the big light until the core market has had a good chance to try everything.
7) How you are able to solve the challenges of unexpected business interruptions?
ZM: Sandy was one of the most trying events of my entire life. They should teach entire college courses on what to do when everything gets upended by the East River coming to pay you a visit, because my business partner and I sure were confused at first. I’m lucky enough to be in business with someone who’s as stubborn as I am and who is willing to work around the clock to get back on their feet.
Everything since the storm has felt insanely simple in comparison to that entire month. We were doing well before the storm, but it gave us an opportunity to refocus and hone in on areas we would’ve done differently the first time around.
Also, I live around the corner, so I’m pretty much always on the clock to quickly handle any unforeseen disasters.
TK: There is only so much we can do about unexpected business interruptions, like hurricanes and blizzards. If the power is on we are going to be open. Staffing can be an issue. I definitely take into account where someone live in the hiring process. Having people that can get in even if the trains stop is key. I have one guy that lives in Jersey City, that became an issue when the path was limited for so long. If I had more people outside the city it could get dicey.
HJ: Employees who live close by. They have been essential in ensuring that there are little to no “unexpected business interruptions.”
DC: Sandy sucked. Losing power and business for 5 days was rough. Although I felt very grateful to be out of the flood zone as so many businesses went through far worse losses that I did. You can cut staff and take on more work yourself in order to catch up on losses but there is very little you can do short of having an insurance policy that covers loss of business even in the event of an off premise incident.
PD: Fuck Sandy is all I can say! The hurricane hit Alewife hard and cost us money we desperately needed, destroyed a big part of the bar and made me loose some staff, but we worked threw it, poured/sold what we could, not long after the Department of Health showed up and gave us a few hefty fines even though our kitchen was still closed and violations where caused by a damn hurricane! The 7 train closing on weekends is a bit of a bitch too!!
BM: I think patience is the key to that. We really just work until the job gets done and try to remember that snow storms, hurricanes, delayed deliveries etc are part of the game. We have to make sure we have enough patience in our tank.
CO: From the point of view of a consumer and advocate for beer, I tried my best after Sandy to drive business to the places that were hurt in the storm. I asked my readers to support ABC Beer Co and Alewife, who were damaged, and Jimmy’s, Good Beer, and pretty much every other bar and shop south of 23rd Street that lost power and business for days. These aren’t easy things to deal with, and I hope in the end, the support of the craft beer community helped them stay afloat.
SM: Be nimble and expect that interruptions are going to happen. If I’m on the phone tutoring a beer scholar and my 19th month old comes in with a poop in her diaper, I put a blue tooth in and change the diaper while talking about the malt forwardness of the Vienna Lager while still imagining a beautiful beer.
8) Do you see the NY craft beer bubble bursting?
CO: Talk of the bubble nationally has been overblown. Three years ago we were talking about a bubble and nearly a thousand breweries and brewpubs have opened since then, with only a few dozen closing. I was never worried about the bubble bursting in New York, though, because there hasn’t been a bubble. We’ve got a long way to go before there’s any semblance of saturation of craft beer in this market. It’s an upscale market that has the profile of a typical craft beer consumer, but it’s been harder to find here.
You can go into virtually any bar or restaurant in the Pacific Northwest and find at least one solid Double IPA or Doppelbock or Imperial Stout from a local brewery on tap. We’re certainly nowhere near that point. Even bars that don’t pride themselves on good beer have good beer available. I don’t think New York has realized that yet. And at the same time, the recent openings show how far we still have to go in simply understanding good beer: lots of tap lines, very little rotation, the same players every time. And these places will beat their chests about their beer selection.
When you can walk to your neighborhood bar anywhere in the five boroughs and have enough craft beer options so you’re not drinking the same two beers every time you go, that’s when this city will have achieved a self-awareness about craft beer. We’re nowhere near that, even, let alone a bubble.
SM: The nature of a bubble is the absence of a solid middle and a very thin medium. There is no craft beer bubble. It has been built solidly by very dedicated beer lovers in the context of one of the most serious culinary cultures in the world. Plus, the two very famous bubbles of real estate and the dot-com industry show us that bubbles, unless working to show us how beautiful a beer is, truly suck.
HJ: See answer 1. I went into a brand new bar the other day that had just about the worst draft list I have ever seen. And they had 30 lines!! There’s still lots of room to grow. Everyday every person on this panel is working hard to introduce real beer to someone who has no idea what it is. And there are plenty of those people.
JB: In a word, no. New York has so far to grow that we’re really only seeing the very beginning of a flourishing craft beer culture. Hell, there were more breweries in New York in the nineties than there are now.
DC: No but I expect not just in NY but all over the country lots of people opening breweries. The people that open breweries with a passion for making great beer will be more likely to thrive than the ones that just want to get in on the craft beer trend. Most customers are educated enough to tell the difference something truly good and something that is trying to get their dollars. It’s like fancy bottle art, it might get you to buy it thefirst time but if the liquid is no good, you wont buy it again.
PD: Not for some time, maybe if they legalize weed but who knows!
BM: No, I think the bubble of heavily commercialized lousy beer is bursting. Is anyone asking about that? Every time a new person steps into a craft beer bar, and says “wow”, the market grows. I see it everyday. I don’t see them going back to drinking mass produced lagers out of dirty lines. The choices in craft are endless and exploration is at the heart of the craft drinkers voyage. New Yorkers are really digging this growing scene. Craft brewers are keeping it fresh with constant change.
ZM: There would have to be a bubble for it to burst. This is just the emergence of a product into a willing market.
Tech, on the other hand….
TK: No, I don’t think we are in a bubble, never mind it bursting. Craft is catching on more and more with the mainstream consumer. They don’t drink it exclusively but occasionally and that is fine. As I said above, the craft drinking population is expanding. The people in this forum, and many others are working to expand this universe every day. The conversations I have every day with people new to craft beer convince me that there is plenty of upside to craft beer.
9) Josh already wrote a lengthy screed on this topic, but what craft beer trends do you hope to see as we move forward?
BM: A honing in on untouched markets. Craft brewers have always been looking to brew with the next ingredient and test the market or just trying to be crazy. I think now we will see them looking to fill market niches. It is an inevitable market transition but I don’t think we will suffer from lack of variety, at least I really hope craft stays craft.
HJ: I agree with just about everything on Josh’s list. I want to see more pilsners and other lagers. More session beers. More nuanced beers, less hit you over the head beers. No more brand new breweries charging an arm and a leg for beer I’ve never heard of. Less hype, more substance. And that goes for retailers, too. Ourselves included.
SM: Growlers, larger format cans and bottles. I’d like to see quart cans. Less IPA’s and Sour ales, Leipzeger Gose, gruits,many more nanos.
TK: I’d like to see a continuation of a rebirth of beer styles that have fallen out of fashion. Thanks to craft beer over the last few decades beers that had all but ceased to be produced have gained in popularity. Belgian White, Porters, Sours had all nearly disappeared when craft brewers brought them back from obscurity. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
CO: More session beers, please. More lagers, too. Fewer overhopped, overhyped beers. Less fawning over beers and breweries from out of town, and recognizing we have many good options at home.
ZM: I also agree with Josh. More pilsners, less hopped-to-high-heavens IPAs, and less gimmicky one-offs that do nothing for the industry but create a frenzy over short supply. A stable of good session beers will be what usher craft brewing into the mainstream.
DC: More session beers with great flavor. This is definitely happening but I still want more of it. More sours as well.
PD: I hope to see more well-balanced, flavorful, sessionable beers. I have much respect for a brewery that can create a low ABV, balanced beer with an abundance of flavor.
JB: I stand by my earlier screed.
10) Taken together, where would you rank New York City/State’s craft beer culture — our breweries, brewpubs, bars, bottle shops, etc. — at the national level?
JB: New York has world-class beer bars, but I don’t see NYC as being a destination for beer tourists. There is just far too much going on in New York for it to hang its hat on just beer. But for tourists, I think the city can offer unparalleled experiences of sipping and sampling beer, complementing and rounding out any trip. Plus, we have fun quirks like on-premise growler consumption (hey, Bierkraft!) that many cities can;t match. We’re helping lead the way in the idea of a beer shop as an ersatz tasting room.
ZM: New York is growing so quickly. It has come so far. But I think New York City’s legacy in the growth of craft beer will rely less upon it’s ability to produce dozens of breweries and more on its ability to provide a wide selection to its citizens. I think rent is too high anywhere in the five boroughs to foster craft production, but we have some of the best brewpubs in the country to make up for it.
However, I am very optimistic about upstate breweries. Guys like Ommegang already stand out nationwide as one of the best. Lesser-knowns like Three Heads in Rochester are showing how passionate and capable our state’s brewers can be. We’ve also got the dark horse factor in effect, with a scene that’s much less crowded than Vermont, California, Oregon. I foresee great things.
There’s nothing wrong with being behind these great brewery cities; we’re still way ahead of most other places.
CO: I wouldn’t put us near the top. When craft beer is part of the culture as it is in places like Denver and Portland and San Diego, it’s hard to put New York anywhere near that. Working in the industry or drinking nothing but craft beer puts you in a bubble, sometimes. When you go out to a high-end restaurant with a 40-page wine list with paragraph-long descriptions and craft beer gets a quarter-page in a corner with not even a mention of style, you know you’ve got a long way to go. When new “beer bars” open and have seemingly no awareness of what makes a beer bar good, you know you’ve got a long way to go. The bottom line is that craft beer is still seen here as a trend, whereas it’s ingrained in the culture of places like California, Oregon, Vermont and Colorado. That’s what keeps New York from being in that top-tier, but we’re making progress, especially with all the new local breweries opening and mainstream media attention.
SM: New York is home. It has the best craft beer culture to me because it is my craft beer village. I’ve been to many great places with a lot of breweries and craft beer bars but, you can have a great craft beer culture in one brewpub in the middle of nowhere with a good bottle store attached or across the way. As long as the people are good beer people, you’re all set.
BM: New York is growing that is for sure. And as we add bars we add adventures for the craft beer drinker. Though I don’t really think we have adventures for craft drinkers that are comparable to California, Oregon, Colorado or Pennsylvania, I think we are on our way and each time a new bar/restaurant comes aboard I think we get one step closer to being on the national level.
HJ: I think New York is woefully behind [the places that most would consider among the top craft beer locations in the country]. And that’s OK ‘cause we get a lot of their beer anyway. And this isn’t in any way meant as a dig at this scene or the people who’ve worked so hard to bring us to this point. I don’t know how to describe it, I just don’t see it as being a great “beer destination.” And that’s OK, cause it’s, you know, New York City.
DC: I think it’s top ten for sure maybe top 5. Certainly CO, OR, CA, PA would likely be considered the top 4 with a couple of options for number five. WA, MI and NY all have arguments.
PD: Top five easy. We need to pour and support our local breweries and grow from within, and help further expose the quality of local and northeastern breweries.
11) What is one thing about the New York craft beer scene that a craft beer fan would be surprised to learn?
BM: I think craft lovers of New York would be surprised to see how many people are trying to get in this game and dazzle them with the next great beer or next great beer bar. It is a great time to be a craft beer consumer.
ZM: Women who love beer. I’ve seen so many men joke about how women will never enjoy a craft beer bar as much as men when in reality, some of my most informed and passionate return customers are female. They’re embracing everything passionately and I love it.
SM: There are numerous beers served on draught in New York City that have not been stored and served utilizing standard industry best practices and therefore do not taste as the brewer intended. I’m appalled regularly by this.
TK: I think craft beer fans would be surprised at who else is getting into the craft beer craze in NYC. It’s not just guys with beards and tats. We get preppies, artists, bankers, men, women from all over. It’s great, especially since we’re across the street from The Tenement Museum and get to see the melting pot of people that are craft beer fans.
CO: I think most craft beer fans are still unaware of the regulatory issues that hold brewers back and the three-tier system involved in getting the beer to them. They may not want to (or even need to) know these things, but it’s amazing how many people have asked me the Bell’s/Russian River/New Belgium question in the context of a bar owner just ordering a beer from the brewery and shipping it to them.
I’d also echo Sam’s comments about improper serving and storage of beer here. The problem is that some bar owners are jumping on the craft beer bandwagon without the knowledge or respect for the beer, just out to make a buck. That problem results in lower-quality beer at high prices.
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